Moving Towards South Asian Confederation
Ideal of Human Unity - Chapters


Diversity in Oneness

Apropos The Tower of Babel and Diversity of languages

In his study of the necessity of natural groupings in the context of Nature’s insistence on the diversity of languages as a ‘great principle of division’, Sri Aurobindo recalls the Biblical legend of the Tower of Babel (as told in Genesis 11: 1-9) that spoke of ‘the diversity of tongues as a curse laid on the race’. (The Ideal of Human Unity, pg.514) Indeed, the construction of the tower that purportedly was to rise to heaven was viewed by God as an act of defiance and blasphemy by the people who had been united after the Great Flood in speaking a single language. God, it seems, confounded their speech so that they would no longer understand each other and would get scattered all over the world (An Islamic version by the 9th century theologian, al-Tabari described how God destroyed a tower in ‘Babil’ and the common Syriac language was confused into 72 languages. Scholars like Yahya Emerick contested this view by arguing that the theme of God separating humanity on the basis of language was alien to Islam). (

However instead of viewing God’s action of diversification of languages as a curse for the pride of humanity, some interpreters have regarded it as an explanatory aetiology of cultural differences in the old World where Babel symbolized the cradle of civilization. Sri Aurobindo opined that the phenomenon of diversity of languages was ‘rather a blessing than a curse, a gift to mankind rather than a disability laid upon it’.(The Ideal of Human Unity, pg 514) He was of course practical enough to renounce the ‘purposeless exaggeration’ and ‘excessive pullulation’ by the numerous dialectical variations of the dozen or more great tongues together with the aboriginal survivals of tribal speech that served no purpose ‘in the expression of a real diversity of spirit and culture.’ (Ibid) However he was confident that in present times, the antipathies generated by the diversity of languages would be overcome by a growing interpenetration of cultures in a world progressing towards an increasingly global consciousness.(Ibid, pg.515)

Advantages of Diversity of Language

Sri Aurobindo lists two advantages of the diversity of language:

(a) A use of unification, and

(b) A use of variation. (Ibid)

As an agent of unification, a language is ‘an intellectual, aesthetic and expressive bond which tempers division where division exists and strengthens unity where unity has been achieved. Especially it gives self-consciousness to national or racial unity and creates the bond of a common self-expression and a common record of achievement’. (Ibid)

As an agent of variation, ‘it is a means of national differentiation and perhaps the most powerful of all, not a barren principle of variation merely, but a fruitful and helpful differentiation. For each language is the sign and power of the soul of the people which naturally speaks it. Each develops therefore its own peculiar spirit, thought-temperament, way of dealing with life and knowledge and experience. If it receives and welcomes the thought, the life-experience, the spiritual impact of other nations , still it transforms them into something new of its own and by that power of transmutation it enriches the life of humanity with its fruitful borrowings and does not merely repeat what had been gained elsewhere.’(Ibid)

‘Therefore it is of the utmost value to a nation, a human group-soul, to preserve its language and to make of it a strong and living cultural instrument. A nation, race or people which loses its language cannot live its whole life or its real life. And this advantage to the national life is at the same time an advantage to the general life of the human race’. (Ibid. pg.515-516)


Date of Update: 21-July-18

- By Dr. Soumitra Basu